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Zuckerberg Calls Snapchat A “Privacy Phenomenon”

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Mark Zuckerberg thinks Facebook’s innovated by creating a place where people could share what wasn’t shared before, which is also why he thinks Snapchat is important. Today in a low-profile talk at Stanford alongside discussions of the NSA and venture capital’s shortcomings, Zuckerberg said “Snapchat is a super interesting privacy phenomenon.”

Zuckerberg sat down today with Stanford’s President John Hennessy onstage at the school’s Memorial Auditorium for a wide-ranging hour-long chat in front of Stanford students, professors, trustees, and Facebook employees. Here’s a video clip of a more light-hearted anecdote from Zuckerberg about Facebook’s early days that Stanford published.

The NSA And VC

The CEO spoke at length about Facebook’s three new goals after reaching 1 billion users: Connecting the rest of the world to the Internet, understanding the world through an artificial intelligence-powered unified model, and fostering the knowledge economy so more of the world can thrive.

Zuckerberg pointed out how Silicon Valley venture capitalists aren’t necessarily equipped to fund solutions to these problems (emphasis mine):

“You know there’s a great venture capital system here for investing in problems that require maybe like one to ten million dollars to kind of get started solving. But there aren’t really a whole lot of places in the world where you can solve problems that require, say, a billion dollars or three billion dollars of investment up front before you can really make a huge amount of progress on them.

And I think some of these problems are really worth solving like Internet for everyone in the world, or trying to build this unified model and build some kind of early AI, or trying to solve some of these issues around the knowledge economy…and there are only a handful of companies and a handful of governments in the world that are really in a position to make those kind of investments so I want to make sure that we put a lot of our efforts towards doing big things like that.

This means we should expect to see Facebook continuing to pursue programs like Internet.org and its new artificial intelligence initiative. Zuckerberg explained, along the way to solving huge problems, there are often rapid advances in technology – much in the way Bell Labs invented the transistor while trying to make phone signals travel across the country. So while these goals might have no “end” in sight, they may produce intermediary benefits to Facebook’s product and armory of intellectual property.

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As for the impact of NSA relations on the average Facebook user’s willingness to share, Zuckerberg noted “I haven’t seen it in anything that we measure.” However, he said that the United States has been a champion of freedom of speech as the right policy, but that our insistence on surveillance could make the world lose faith in that ideal. Zuckerberg stated:

“The biggest concern that I have is that the NSA revelations knock that down a peg and I think the U.S. loses the moral high ground a bit, which makes it so that other countries which may have different views on how this should work now are more kind of empowered to do things in a way that might kind of balkanize or splinter things a bit more, which I think would be quite unfortunate if the Internet ended up working very differently or there were different rules for connection.”

Snapchat As A New Place To Share

The most fascinating part of the talk was where Zuckerberg said Facebook thinks about privacy much differently than most people expect, hinting that the world believes the company is pretty much against it. After all, the latest Grand Theft Auto video game did parody Facebook by naming its in-world social network “LifeInvader.”

Zuckerberg explained that before Facebook, there was instant messenger for communicating with one other person or a small group, and there were blogs for sharing publicly, but there was nothing in between. Zuckerberg said (emphasis mine):

“There was no privacy infrastructure to communicate with your community or just a set of friends all at once, and because of the lack of that, basically if people wanted to communicate something they had to choose to communicate with a very small audience or communicate it publicly. A lot of times you’re not comfortable communicating it publicly and maybe it’s just not worth communicating it to a small set or that’s not the full potential of what you want to communicate so you just don’t do it, it just gets lost. And that potential idea that could have been shared, or thought, or human connection and kind of option to have more connection and do more on that over time is lost.

So I actually think kind of the fundamental innovation that Facebook brought was creating this space. Right, which is really, it’s a private space that didn’t exist before. That there was no tool to be able to communicate in that space, and by opening that up and enabling people to kind of fill that space we unlocked a huge amount of potential in terms of people being able to communicate ideas and learn about what’s going on around them.”

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Unfortunately, that statement is at odds with a lot of how Facebook actually handles privacy. As far back as 2009 and 2010, Facebook began recommending that existing users share their status updates, photos, and other content publicly. It also began defaulting users to share these types of posts with everyone – something I criticized at the time for putting users at risk, which I still believe. A lot of people don’t change their default settings. And though Facebook shows a privacy indicator every time you’re about to post, many people ignore it and end up sharing more publicly than they’d like to.

More recently, Facebook has also been giving marketers limited access to searching the firehose of public posts, and encouraging users to post more publicly with hashtags, trending topics, embeddable posts, and other Twitter-like features.

Getting people to share publicly gives Facebook better data to improve everything from search to artificial intelligence, which it sees as a positive. But the honorable thing to do would be defaulting people to share with friends, and giving them the choice to share publicly – not vice versa as it does now.

Yet still, Zuckerberg seems to see a little bit of Facebook’s innovation in Snapchat. He continued his discussion of how Facebook created a home for previously unshared content, saying:

I think a lot of the most interesting startups today are actually doing different interesting things like this. Whether they’re messenger companies that are allowing different ways to communicate very quickly with small groups.

I think Snapchat is a super interesting privacy phenomenon because it creates a new kind of space to communicate which makes it so that things that people previously would not have been able to share, you now feel like you have place to do so.

And I think that’s really important and that’s a big kind of innovation that we’re going to keep pushing on and keep trying to do more on and I think a lot of other companies will, too.

So just because Facebook’s attempt at ephemeral messaging Poke failed and its bid to acquire Snapchat was turned down, don’t expect it to bow out of this fight. If there’s sharing that people aren’t doing on Facebook today, you can bet Zuckerberg will try to absorb it somehow.

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Maybe with a more tactful approach to its quest “to make the world more open and connected,” that sharing would already be happening within its walls.

Facebook’s privacy changes and constant prodding to share more widely have generated a fair amount of ill-will. So perhaps Zuckerberg shouldn’t see Snapchat, where you get to specifically choose who to share with every time, as a “privacy phenomenon.”

Maybe if people weren’t worried they were always one wrong privacy setting away from broadcasting to the entire world, they wouldn’t be so desperate for Snapchat.

Additional reporting by Billy Gallagher

[Image Credit: L.A. Cicero via Stanford]

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